I've heard tales where if you're bad, you are re-incarnated as a bug or something. I'm sure there is more to it than this - can someone clear it up?
A complex topic, but I will try to give the basics and make some points.
First, let's understand what creates karma from the Vaishnava perspective. In the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 4.16-23), Krishna explains that are three different types of work:
- akarma, which is work done in pure consciousness, which produces no karma
- karma, prescribed work, which accrues either good or bad karma (work produces fruit),
- vikarma, or forbidden activities.
The goal is to perform all our activities in transcendental consciousness, which creates no karma or akarma. Good karma and bad karma do not balance each other out. They are like two different bank accounts, and the money in both will have to be spent.
One cannot escape the cycle of birth and death unless one is completely free from karma. Krishna again explains this in Bhagavad Gita 4.20:
Abandoning all attachment to the results of his activities, ever satisﬁed and independent, he performs no fruitive action, although engaged in all kinds of undertakings.
Srimad Bhagavatam (5.5.5) also states:
As long as one does not inquire about the spiritual values of life, one is defeated and subjected to miseries arising from ignorance. Be it sinful or pious, karma has its resultant actions. If a person is engaged in any kind of karma, his mind is called karmātmaka, colored with fruitive activity. As long as the mind is impure, consciousness is unclear, and as long as one is absorbed in fruitive activity, he has to accept a material body.
As far as the next body, that is governed by the state of the consciousness at the time of death. See Bhagavad Gita 8.6:
Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kuntī, that state he will attain without fail.
There is also mention of this later in the Gita in chapter 14. What you're referring to in "if you're bad, you will become a bug," there are specific references to what type of birth you will take if you commit certain actions, and these are mentioned in numerous Puranas, but it is rather complex.
Definition: karma is the interaction between jiva (soul) and matter :
There are three principal "actors" in the material world: (1)God, (2)the passive matter and (3)the active living beings. (4)Kaala (or time) is the process by which God relates to the matter (separates it into the no-longer-available, available and yet-unavailable). (5)Karma is the process by which the (small) living beings relate to the matter. It is by no means simple: Bhagavad gita 4.16. These are the five principal topics that are discussed in Mahabharata and in Bhagavad-gita especially.
It is enforced by God :
In BG 9.10 Krishna says that matter works under his superintendence. Karma is a material law, static and predictable. The other party, the jiva soul is not predictable and causes variety (BG 7.5), however everyone's karma is only the repercussion of his own choices. How karma is enforced, is a complex system of delegation, where demigods, human authorities and even plants and insects play their roles on behalf of Krishna.
The Basic Rules :
The 4th chapter of Bhagavad-gita describes that attachment is what causes bondage. Even if two persons perform the same action externally, their intent is what determines the result, which can be completely different in both cases. If there is no attachment, there is no result to suffer or enjoy (BG 18.12). Karma is very individual and dependent on knowledge (in the sense that nobody can act in your place but can inspire you). Whatever you choose, you always get the full experience, even if it is distributed in time. E.g. if somebody thinks that he will get happiness by killing others (including meat eating), he will get killed many times over himself in a similar spirit to get the full experience of the killing.
Escape from karma :
Matter is a source of suffering only, therefore wise people prefer not to touch it at all: they do interact, but not for themselves (BG 6.1). This is akarma: the one who ordered the action, takes the responsibility. In a mundane sense, these are the scriptures, but actually they represent God. If someone surrenders to Krishna, Krishna takes all responsibility to protect the devotee (BG 9.22, BG 12.6-7, BG 18.66). Interaction with spirit is not karma. There is no karma in the spiritual world at all, because there is no matter. Everything is totally spontaneous. Purely spiritual activity is another way to view akarma. Interactions between materially conditioned living beings are also not pure karma, there is an element of freedom or unpredictability.
(note: I have answer this in other thread and I hope it would be helpful here, so copy and paste it here)
As per the Great Writer in Gujarat Mr.Thakkar has written good book for understand the Karma.
The Karma is Done by Body, Mind and Speech Body have 10 Senses Known as; 5 karmendriyas(Organs of Actions) and 5 Gyanendriyas (organs of Senses) All Kardma are done by that, by body. Mind have Buddhi(intelact), Ahamkara(Ego) and Mind have five consciousness. There is require to understand mind, beyond being mind. Mind have five states. These are 5 states of consciousness in human forms.
Jagruti - Waking Swapna - Dreaming Sushupti - Deep Sleep (slumber) Turiya - Underlying state in all the above states Unmani or Turyateeta - State of enlightened beings where the cosmos is experienced as oneness.
And Third One is Speech.
Now, refer Gunas; Which are also known as prakriti. There are Three Gunas. These three gunas are called: [sattva] (goodness, constructive, harmonious), [rajas] (passion, active, confused), and [tamas] (darkness, destructive, chaotic). In short Satva is Possitive create Punya(Righteousness), Rajas is Neutral neither creat punya(Righteousness) or Pap(sin) and Tamas only creates pap(Sin)
These Three Gunas are the base of all the activities we done. Only Karma is not have its fruit, its depend on the Gunas. The Example Given by Mr.Thakkar were not totally show true picture, but its lead to right understanding of Karma and its Gati(Result). There is Karma and its Fal(Fruits) which are as per Gunas.
Eg. For Doing Karma: Like if it is stated that A will kill B --Now Sattva People will join military or police and for stoping the B from doing Illegal Act A fire a Gun and B will Die, As per the mental feeling of A have Virtues,So A do its Karma and also Gain Punya(righteousness) --If There is Rajas Karma, A will try to clear its Gun, and sudden that fire and kill B, it this action(karma) the feeling of the A is neither right nor to do something wrong, its neutral, so that will neither creat righteousness nor sin. --If there is Tamas karma, A would be either thief or to gain something by illegal way, kill B, The mental feeling is to do something wrong, so in result, A Do Karma as its written that A will do it, and also create the Sin.
So By doing Karma, A if do Satva, do karma and have righteousness, if Rajas neither righteousness nor sin, If Tamas do karma and create the Sin.(for which he pay the price.
Now see how Fruit are received by Satva, Rajas And Tamas it is said that A must die by Gun Shot -- Now if A is to gain Good Fruit by even facing the Fruit of its past karma, A will join the military, or police and Get the shot and as he had feeling to do something good, as fulfilling duty, He get the Fruit, and also create righteousness -- If he has to get result as Rajas, he try to clean the gun and suddenly bullet fired from gun, as the mind of the A is neutral and he neither want to do right nor wrong he will neither get righteousness nor sin in his account of Karma and Fruit --If There is Tamas Karma, A will try to theft or do wrong thing and get shot by police, and that will create sin.
So As per three Gunas the person do Karma, and also get the fruit.
If There is decided that, as per karma of the A he will Get Rs.1,00,000/-; If he want to act as Satva, he would do some prestigious work and will get honour price, so he get the money and also create righteousness. if he get by lottery or from some place, as person have neutral mind and feeling, neither righteousness nor sin will created in Karma Account, If person would act under effect of Tamas he would do some wrong act, theft the money, or by extortion, and create sin.
Karma are connected with the Gunas and Mental Status. Karma are depend on feeling(bhava) like Hug to Mother, Hug to Wife or Hug to Daughter is Act of Hug, but the feeling are different and create different righteousness or Sin in Karma Account.
Every object in the universe is endowed with four characteristics: dharma, karma, prema and gyana. Of these, karma is the most talked about; it is also the most misunderstood. The Gita says: “Gahna Karmanyo Gathi” -- Unfathomable are the ways of karma. There are three types of karma: Prarabha, sanchita and agami. The first is latent karma, an impression or seed of action. The second is karma as action, and the third is karma as result. Prarabha means ‘begun’; the action that is already manifesting and that is yielding its effect right now.
You cannot avoid it or change it, as it is already happening. Sanchita is accumulated karma. It is latent or manifested in the form of a tendency or impression in the mind. Sanchita karma can be burned off by spiritual practices before it manifests. Agami karma is the future karma of action; that which has not yet come and which will take effect in the future. If you commit a crime, you may not get caught today, but will live with the possibility that one day you may get caught. Karma is also always bound by time, because every action has a limited reaction.
If you do something good to people they will come to thank you and be grateful to you as long as they are experiencing the effect of your action. So, karma has only a limited sphere of its effect, be it good or badIt is often asked, “Why are good people made to suffer while those who commit injustice go unpunished?” Such questions arise when we see an event in its limited framework. No good action will yield a bad result and no bad action will bring a good result. This is the law of karma As you sow, so shall you reap.
If you sow a mango tree, some thorny bushes may come up because of the seeds present in the manure brought from somewhere else. It is not the mango seed that brings up the thorny bush. Your mango seed will bring mango fruit, in due course. Karma is that which propels reincarnation. The stronger the impression, the greater the possibility of the next life being according to that. So, often you reincarnate like the person you hate or love. The mind which is full of different impressions leaves this body but the impressions await suitable situations to come back.
So the last thought is very important. Whatever you do throughout your life, in the last moment your mind should be free and happy. Our perception of suffering, of good and bad, is always relative. God is absolute reality; a witness of all. See God as movie director, rather than as a judge. He has no ill feeling for the villain and no special favour for the hero. Each one is playing her role. An awareness of dharma helps in comprehending the strange ways of karma. Whenever you see bad karma or someone suffering, you need to help.
From an article by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: http://www.speakingtree.in/article/the-ways-of-karma_23947